by Ruairí McCann
Near the end of Tsai Ming-liang’s film Afternoon (2015) — a conversation, filmed across 134 minutes and 4 shots, between Tsai and his muse Lee Kang-sheng — the filmmaker fills a lull with prognostication on his art. Influenced by the shadow of Stray Dogs (2013), a production troubled by Tsai’s own health complications, he contemplates never making another movie. However, he quickly adjusts this statement from a moratorium to the expressed desire to spend the remainder of his life just filming Lee; his body and being.
This wish comes to fruition, in all its complexity, masked by its apparent modesty, with Days (2020). It has been called a fiction film, even labelled by some as his first feature film since Stray Dogs. This is not the case, though it does, to an extent, call back to older film work with certain narrative elements. Like much of his later work, its categorization is slippery. For the first hour especially, it is something more akin to documentary, as Tsai follows the separate routines of Lee and a new collaborator, Anong Houngheuangsy, a young Laotian immigrant who lives in Bangkok. We see their lives play out, interspersed but separately, with Lee convalescing in his mountain home — which he has cohabited with Tsai since 2014 — before heading into the city to attend electroacupuncture therapy and then wander the streets. Meanwhile, Anong resides in his bare, dingy flat, praying then preparing and eating a meal before he too takes to the streets.
This first part of the film was put together with a remarkable informality. Tsai embarked on a fastidious documentation of these two men, conducted over the span of several years, with no film, installation or any other complete art object in mind as an end goal. Rather, for a while, he was just indulging the nucleus of his corpus, this unfathomably deep desire to put Lee to screen. Amplified in this iteration by a specific curiosity in the healing process through which Lee was routinely putting his body—Lee suffered a minor stroke in 2014 and lives with a chronic condition; a slipped disc in his neck, which has plagued him for years and has been incorporated as an on-and-off element in Tsai’s work since The River (1997).
As the footage began to accumulate, Tsai was struck with the notion to go out to Bangkok and film Anong, with whom he had been video chatting in the time since their first meeting. Now with two subjects, an idea for an actual film began to ferment, with the possibility of these two men meeting as the lynchpin.
Despite its shoot-and-see piecemeal construction — especially evident in a scene like Lee’s exit from the acupuncturist, which diverges from the established formal language with a seemingly impromptu, shaky, moving handheld shot — this is incredibly considered filmmaking from the outset. Though initially the two stars never share the same frame and space, Tsai ties them with the commonality of seeing them at their most hermitic. There is a tension in the cinematography, between presenting them in a very tactile and immediate way, up close and unvarnished, and from that of an alien perspective, signalled through how certain shots are obscured or filtered: Lee is introduced from behind a pane of glass and is later veiled with tree branches while Anong is often framed in fragments.
That their worlds are quite different is made apparent not only from their distinctive milieus, but also through the sound design. Lee’s is a serene bed of natural elements; the collective hush that is the ambience of the heart of the country, lightly peppered with insect and bird sounds. Anong’s abode, on the other hand, is blanketed by the bellowing and bloviation of mechanics, with the city already intruding in the form of distant traffic sounds, mixed in with the drone of a fluorescent overhead. All broken up by the clear and sharp sounds of labour, as Anong rearranges his pans, fills a tub and, by hand yet in a hypnotically pneumatic fashion, chops up vegetables.
Once outside, these two soundscapes collapse into one: that of the city. Meanwhile the cinematography becomes profuse with striking uses of deep space that express the communality of the urban and its odd juxtapositions, including rhyming usurpations of the usually star-reserved centre-frame by both crowds but also individual bystanders who mosey into shot, seemingly accidentally and unaware.
Tsai’s late digital style, composed mostly of exceptionally long and static stakes, is perfectly attuned to the city as a hive of mundane surrealism and auto-association. One of the most striking examples is a shot of a derelict building during sunset. The way the sunlight hits this immense but faded glass edifice, and how it fills up the entire frame, is initially disorientating. The sight appears like a close-up of abstract art, rather than of a piece of architecture. Yet Tsai holds long enough for the eye to focus and then contemplate its rich detail; the gradients of the reflecting, golden vesper and the tiny but engaging found narrative of a cat sauntering from window to window.
This intervention of fiction comes when these two mortals, on rhyming and paralleled, but hitherto separate trajectories, come together halfway through the film. Through an elided series of events, they meet in a hotel room, which unfolds as a hazy yet precisely framed plot for their lust and desire for comfort. The encounter itself plays out at over twenty minutes and two shots, with Lee, having solicited Anong, lying naked on the bed. From there, the younger man proceeds to straddle and oil the older man, before giving him a massage, front and back. The massage then quite naturally transitions to sex, as the two embrace, kiss and Anong jerks Lee off.
Afterwards, Lee hands over the money but before they leave, they sit together. In their shared little bubble of satisfaction, Lee presents Anong with a small but sweet token of his affection. A music box which plays the theme from Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952). Tsai, ever expressive and explicit with his cinephilia, once propped Lee up as the mirror image of Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows (1959). Now that he is no longer playing the diffident and sexually frustrated street kid but the older, more paternal lover, Chaplin’s venerable vaudevillian has become the new, though more elusive, model of allusion.
The tremendous beauty of this scene grows from the slow build-up and its contrast to what has been shown as the main matter of these men’s lives; that they get by as islands, introverted, with Lee additionally coping with his weakened body. Tsai emphasizes the frailty and burden of the latter with the scene at the acupuncturist. He gives not only a close-up but parallax view of Lee’s form. His back dotted with burning needles, outfitted with makeshift metal plates to catch any falling embers, giving the impression of him as a broken-down machine. In this sequence, healing is inextricable from pain, with Lee gasping whenever embers manage to slip past the plates. The camera lingers on the contusions that stretch and ripple down his back, dredged up by a rigorous, post-treatment massage. And, after having his face squished into a headrest for so long, Lee’s singularly beautiful features are shown lined and puffy.
In contrast, the massage in the hotel is an act of healing and relief. His body is treated just as materially but far more tenderly, with his skin made smooth and shiny, as if it was brand new, and Anong’s lover’s touch, swift and delicate, passes over his body with considerable care. While Anong’s dominance in the scene, and the artful elegance of his movements, contrasts with the poverty of his one mattress digs. Tsai then has employed the space of queer, casual sex, and of fiction, as one that comments on and is restorative against real life.
There is also a complex sociology at work behind this film and Tsai’s concerns. In a recent ‘Happy Hour’ with critic Nick Pinkerton hosted on Zoom by Reverse Shot, a connection was made between Days, the rest of Tsai’s oeuvre, and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), a book by Samuel R. Delany which I read during lockdown and which immediately reminded me of Tsai. This extraordinary piece of literature is split into two halves, the first being a memoir and qualified paean to the gay cruising possibilities of porn theatres that once lined New York’s 42nd street. The other half takes a more formal and sociological approach to the subject, analysing how gentrification and corporate takeover, or outright excision, of independent public places like cinemas or bookshops, have transformed how people meet and connect, whether on the promise of sex or otherwise. This self-same concern has not only been a bugbear for Tsai and implicitly present in Days and across his art in general, but the explicit subject of his diptych about ‘disappearing places’; the short The Skywalk is Gone (2002), and the feature-length Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003).
Our professional and personal lives are now more networked, both literally and metaphorically, as they are dictated by more premediated and schematized forms of social interaction, which Delany calls ‘networking’ in both the literal and analogous sense. Delany laments the diminishment of another way. What he sees as an increasingly bygone and a more direct and chancy form of meeting people that he calls ‘contact’ and which these spaces facilitated. Linking the like-minded but also, perhaps more importantly, allowing the cracking of people’s social diving chambers. For while seated in the aisle, searching and expectant, Delany found he was more exposed to (likely temporary yet still meaningful and mutually beneficial) encounters with people outside his class, race and general experience than at a book conference or another more organized form of social contact.
Class and age are the terms by which Lee and Anong’s lives are drawn distinct from one another, and which they transgress through their brief coupling and copulation. Lee is clearly a bit more well off, going by his countryside abode and a life that is relatively more open to leisure, though with the caveat of being limited by his health problems. While Anong, as a member of an ethnic minority and an immigrant labourer, is consigned to less flush living arrangements and a life more defined by work. If it were not for Tsai and their fictionalized encounter, they would otherwise have never met except in the most basically transactional of circumstances. And while there is the transactional nature to their mock meet-up, it is complicated by its existence outside of the status quo, and by the equilibrizing, or even hierarchy skewering, possibilities of sex.
This film, with its sublime simplicity, is a great achievement, on its terms as a standalone experience but also as a culmination of methods and preoccupations that have dogged Tsai since the beginning of his artistic practice and especially in this later stage of his career. His ‘post-cinema’ stage began with the first entries of the Walker series — the prelude theatre piece Only You (2011) and the first entry proper, the short film Walker (2012) — which has subsequently gone extended through 7 more films, short and long, and an additional theatre piece. These works, with Lee in monk pageantry and yet undeniably himself, walking various cities and the line between documentary and fiction, are arguably the defining works of this era of Tsai’s vocation.
Though the single, defining event, so to speak, was Tsai’s announcement following the premiere of his previous narrative feature, Stray Dogs, which he reiterated in Afternoon. He declared his effective retirement from commercial feature filmmaking, putting it down to poor health but also, most significantly, long-term changes in theatrical funding models and distribution. He felt there was no more room for an artist of his disposition in cinema as it stood, with the subsequent reformatting and re-release of Stray Dogs as an installation the dot at the end of that particular line.
This state of the union has often been framed, casually and in critical pieces, from the most pessimistic lens. That it is one of many signs that cinema, as a theatrical experience, has become the sick man of art, if someone of Tsai’s calibre and renown yet of relatively modest funding needs could be forced out to pasture. His audience, and the audience of serious art cinema in general, is shrinking down even further, to a size more suitable for the rarefied space of an art gallery, rather than a maximalist, populist space like Goodbye, Dragon Inn’s picture palace. The problem with this view is less the serious concern over wider, structural problems, than the misrepresentation that Tsai has just merely retreated to the gallery, that he is an artist in exile rather than one proactively expanding his methods and purview.
Art institutions have become an increasingly important source of funding and exhibition for him, and as a consequence a lot of the newer work is harder to get hold of and see. There is a bracing will to experiment and be open, not only in form but in delivery, to his work of late. He has screened in gallery spaces and film festivals, but also has tried his hand at VR, with a medium length fiction work called The Deserted (2017), which was commissioned and significantly funded privately, by the Taiwanese tech company HTC. He also released Walker and No No Sleep (2015), another entry in the Walker series, on the Chinese streaming platform Youku, to millions of viewers. While exploring these new avenues, he has been striving, and has achieved, the conditions and a way of working that furnished Days. Casual and autonomous, rather than dictated and industrial.
Tsai has always been an artist with his finger in the air, having worked in two mediums with very different methods and expectations; experimental theatre and commercial television, before even coming to the cinema, working his way through the medium’s late 20th/21st century series of seismic shifts. All the while he has been cognizant about how these changes affect his ability to work, and so the need to adapt while making constant his own independence and integrity. This is true of many filmmakers, but Tsai has taken it to an unusual degree. For instance, it is common enough for a filmmaker to set up their own production company, which he has done, founding and running Homegreen Films with Lee. What is more unorthodox is his long-running attempts to self-distribute in Taiwan, to the extent that he, along with Lee and other collaborators, friends and family, have even gone out in public, flogging tickets to passers-by.
Tsai himself has pointed to the film Face (2009), as the precursor to his current flexible means of working and funding, as it disrupted his usual combo of private, commercial, national and international public, governmental funding with the addition of a patronage from the Louvre, where the film was subsequently shot and set. Yet there is an earlier antecedent, in Goodbye, Dragon Inn. The old Taipei picture palace where the film stages its cinematic last hurrah, and various examples of direct contact, both platonic and prurient, was rented out by Tsai, on impulse, before he had even conceived of the project. The location itself stimulated the development of the film and was used for the shoot. This work was not only made on his own terms but circumvented both institutional and commercial norms on how a film should be conceived, endowed and made.
Though it feels somewhat strange to state this about a film so unhurried and even tempered, Days is a grand culmination. It is a filmmaker at his most ambitious, in trying to narrow and prune the passageway between his skill and his subject, while stripping down his tools to tell his perennial concerns with flesh and transcendence, with the nagging need for and power of finding intimacy, wherever it can be found.